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Air Force Reserve unit tests C-130J in Southwest Asia

KEESLER AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Faster, farther, higher, safer. Aircrews and maintainers from the 815th Airlift Squadron here are changing attitudes and proving the effectiveness of their bird – the Hercules airframe known as the C-130J.

As the first unit to take delivery of the J-model in 1999, the 815th Airlift Squadron’s Flying Jennies of Air Force Reserve Command’s 403rd Wing have led the way in training, evaluating and certifying the Air Force’s next-generation airlifter. It’s only fitting that they were called on to support the first Air Force Reserve Command combat mission for the C-130J.

In December, two Jenny aircrews, a maintenance package and support staff deployed to Southwest Asia to become part of a joint airlift mission. Working with active-duty and Air National Guard people, they put the J-model through its paces in a combat theater.

Another rotation of Jennies left Jan. 20 to replace some of the troops who deployed in December. The 815th Airlift Squadron welcomed home some of its warriors Jan. 29. The unit will spend about three months in Southwest Asia supporting operations.

For several months before the initial deployment, unit reservists worked doggedly to ensure the aircraft was released in all categories of the critical types of missions needed to perform in combat. They completed everything from engines-running offloads to blackout night-vision airdrops with results exceeding the expectations of even the most enthusiastic crew members.

“I can say without any hesitation that I prefer the C-130J,” said Capt. Darren Ray, a pilot with the deployed airlift squadron. “I feel so confident in the J-model’s capabilities that I have absolutely no reservations about flying it into the area of responsibility. I don’t think that you can find one person who is qualified on the J-model who can deny its capabilities and would prefer to fly any previous version of the C-130.”

After arriving in-country, the Jennies encountered hurdles such as misconceptions and outright misinformation about the C-130J.

“The amount of erroneous information out there about the new aircraft amazed me,” said Maj. Jeff Ragusa, aircraft commander and tactics pilot for the deployed expeditionary operations support squadron. “Crews who fly the H and E-models out here had a lot of false impressions about the J-model.

“This surprised me even more considering how long we have been flying this aircraft,” he said. “When we got here people thought we were not qualified for tactical missions, and said they had heard the aircraft couldn’t even land on an expedient [dirt] landing zone which is something I personally have done many times.”

“At first, tactical airlifters will be somewhat resistant to accept the J-model, but when everyone learns of its capabilities every C-130 squadron will want the J,” said Captain Ray.

Once the Jennies touched down and immediately started flying missions, opinions began to change. Within the first few weeks in the desert, they were frequently asked for walk-through tours and orientation flights by maintainers and aircrews flying the older versions.

“The C-130 E and H model maintainers are jealous,” said Tech. Sgt. Michael Reach, a communication and navigation systems specialist with the deployed squadron. He attributes the J-model’s computerized diagnostic systems with making it much easier for him to complete his mission on the aircraft. Aircrews are equally excited about their successes in the C-130J.

“The C-130J is performing beyond my expectations,” said Captain Ray. “The tools that are available in the J-model make it possible for the crew to operate safer and with much more situational awareness. We have all of the required information at our fingertips. Landing at an unfamiliar, unlit airfield during the hours of darkness is much easier in this airframe.”

“I feel that during this deployment, we have proven that the J-model is combat-ready and has the ability to accomplish the mission better than its predecessors,” said Capt. Dan Windham, a pilot with the deployed squadron.

Mission planners quickly realized the capabilities of the J-model. Airframe enhancements, new engines, digital instruments and a condensed crew all contribute to the effectiveness of the new airlift platform.

The aircraft's larger cargo compartment and increased engine performance allow twice as much cargo weight to be carried on each mission.

“It will be difficult for J-model opponents to have any complaints now,” said Captain Windham. “The plane is getting it done faster, going farther, and carrying more than the Es and Hs.”

Another benefit to planners in using the J-model is the capacity of the cargo area. The Flying Jennies are operating a “stretched” version of the J-model. For the most part the Jennies are carrying troops into and out of threat areas. The longer aircraft can handle up to 128 combat troops, 92 paratroopers, or a combination of passengers and their cargo up to the compartment capacity.

Compared with the older Hercules’ capacity of 92 combat troops or 64 paratroopers, planners say it makes mathematical sense to use the longer aircraft. Fewer sorties could mean fewer risks to aircraft, crews and troops. While minimizing potential risks ranks above and beyond cost benefits, the Js have also contributed to substantial savings in that arena.

Senior Master Sgt. Todd Patterson, a squadron loadmaster, said he and other Flying Jennies enjoyed being a part of the joint mission, working with their active-duty and Air National Guard counterparts as a single integrated unit. A big part of their mission is transporting troops to their operating bases, and the aircrews can carry almost twice the number of passengers with their baggage pallets as older C-130s.

“We are also capable of performing engines running on-loads and offloads at bases that require engine shutdowns by the classic C-130s due to wind blast,” said Sergeant Patterson. “In addition to our enhanced cargo handling system and built-in cargo winch, this has allowed us to greatly decrease our ground times during on-load and offload. This has limited our ground exposure as well as decreased the duty day allowing for more stops.”

Colonel Sheehan said the aircraft has successfully completed all missions in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the Horn of Africa.

“This translates into fewer aircraft being exposed to potential threats from insurgents, greater terrain clearance over the mountains of Afghanistan and lower operating costs for the Air Force,” he said. “The accuracy of the navigation systems and integration of the heads-up displays exponentially increases situational awareness and the overall safety of the aircraft."